Ralph Van Deman and the Birth of Modern American Military Intelligence

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the US Army’s intelligence efforts were nearly non-existent.  Early attempts to gather information about foreign armies resulted in the creation of a Military Information Division in 1885.  In 1903, the division transferred from the Adjutant General’s Office to the Office of the Chief of Staff, where it became the Second Division of the General Staff.  However, by 1908, the Second Division had been absorbed by the Third (War College) Division, and the Army’s intelligence functions had been relegated to a committee.  Intelligence activities declined over the next several years due to insufficient personnel and appropriations as well as limited interest or understanding of its importance.  By early 1917, “personnel and appropriations were limited, the powers of the committee were narrow and its accomplishments, though valuable, were necessarily meager.  Such was the situation at the time war was declared.”  But change was coming.

In 1915, Major (later Major General) Ralph Van Deman arrived at the War College.  A native of Delaware, Ohio, he had attended both law and medical schools before accepting an infantry commission in 1891.  Over the next two decades, he gained valuable intelligence experience in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and China.  In Manila, Van Deman established an intelligence organization to conduct terrain analysis, mapping, and counterintelligence.  By the time he arrived at the War College, Van Deman was one of few career military intelligence officers in the Army.  He immediately grasped the implications of the United States’ lack of a military intelligence organization and resolved to reverse the situation.

Van Deman wrote numerous memoranda criticizing the ineffectual nature of the War College’s committee.  He stated, “To call a chair a table does not make it a table—it still remains a chair. And to call the personnel of the War College Division a Military Information Committee does not make it one” [emphasis in original].  His appeals for the creation of a competent organization were essentially ignored.  One week after the US declaration of war, Van Deman pled his case to Major General Hugh Scott, the Chief of Staff, who refused to consider the proposal on the grounds that it would only duplicate British and French efforts.

Persisting, Van Deman enlisted the aid of a female novelist and the Washington DC Chief of Police, both friends of Secretary of War Newton Baker.  Either because of or coincident to these outside interventions, Secretary Baker summoned Van Deman to his office on April 30, 1917, to explain the state of US military intelligence.  Just three days later, on May 3, the War College received an order to create an intelligence organization and detail an officer to “take up the work of military intelligence for the Army.”  Van Deman, of course, was the perfect choice to lead the newly established Military Intelligence Section (MIS).

The MIS experienced rapid growth throughout the war.  The Section was divided into a Positive Branch for intelligence collection, attachés, translations, maps and photographs, and training, and a Negative Branch for all counterintelligence functions.  A Code and Ciphers Section within the MIS became the Army’s first organized signals intelligence unit. Finally, Van Deman initiated the first personnel security investigation and identification card systems within the War Department.

By 1918, the renamed Military Intelligence Division had more than 1,400 military and civilian personnel.  At this time, it moved out from under the War College to a spot as one of four equal divisions on the War Department’s General Staff, a position it has maintained to this day.  In addition to equality on the General Staff, other long-standing consequences of the establishment of the MIS were the recognized need for professional intelligence personnel and the preservation of an intelligence effort even in times of peace.

That the World War I period was a watershed in US Army intelligence history cannot be overstated. No single individual did more to advance Army intelligence than Ralph Van Deman.  In 1988, the MI Corps recognized this when it chose him as one of the initial members of the Hall of Fame.  In 1992, it further memorialized him by naming the East Gate in his honor.  Maj. Gen. Ralph Van Deman is recognized as the Father of American Military Intelligence for his role in establishing the first effective, professional intelligence organization within the Army 100 years ago.

NOTE:  Join the US Army Intelligence Center when it rededicates the Van Deman Gate during the Hall of Fame activities, June 23, 2017, at 1430.

 

Ralph Van Deman

Ralph Van Deman

After the war, Ralph Van Deman, shown here as a Colonel, commanded at the regiment, brigade, and division level.  Promoted to Major General in 1929, he retired later that year but continued to consult in Army intelligence matters until his death in 1952.  (US Army photo)
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